10 Logical Fallacies Nonfiction Authors Should Avoid

Like a puzzle, nonfiction writing must be logical and your points must fit together for the reader.A logical fallacy occurs when someone attempts to make a point without proper research and reasoning. In order to be effective, your communications and arguments need to be logical. When you use a fallacy, deliberately or on accident, readers will be left feeling confused or assume you didn’t have enough evidence to truly prove your point. As a result, fallacies can decrease your credibility and the quality of your book. Don’t take shortcuts in your nonfiction book, speaking engagements, or interviews. Familiarize yourself with these ten common logical fallacies so that they don’t end up in your work.

Red Herring:

In a work of fiction, a red herring can be a clever literary device that tricks readers and keeps them guessing throughout the story. But the red herring logical fallacy has no place in nonfiction. When someone employs the red herring, he or she is attempting to distract readers or listeners with an issue only tangentially related to the bigger, more important issue that is being discussed.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework so they have more time for extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and leisure. The teacher replies, “You don’t like homework? You should feel lucky to have homework. Some kids don’t even get to go to school.” The fact that some children don’t attend school has nothing to do with the impact the amount of homework is having on the students.

Hasty Generalization:

Making a conclusion based on only a few examples as evidence. If you’re too quick to make a general statement about a group of people, location, or other topic, and are pressed for evidence, you won’t be able to offer much support.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework. The teacher replies, “Wow, kids your age are really lazy. None of you want to do any hard work.” The teacher only made that statement based off of the actions of one small group of students.

Slippery Slope:

Suggesting that one action will eventually result in an extreme and undesirable outcome. Instead of closely investigating the chain of events that may occur after one action has taken place, someone using the slippery slope fallacy will jump straight to what he or she thinks is the worst outcome, without proper evidence.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework. The teacher replies, “First you ask for less homework. Soon you’ll be asking if we can watch television and play video games during class!” Asking for less homework is a far cry from watching TV and playing games in class; there’s no apparent correlation that the first would cause the second.

Ad Hominem:

Instead of critiquing the argument or viewpoint being shared, an ad hominem is aimed at the person making the statement. You do not call into question the validity of the statement, or the sources used to back it up, but rather attack the person’s character, past actions, or life circumstances. This can look like a cheap shot, and like you don’t know enough to actually argue against the opposing viewpoint.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request. One student replies, “Whatever, I knew you would say no. You don’t even wear matching socks.” The teacher’s personal fashion choices have nothing to do with the decision to keep assigning homework.

Straw Man:

When you “attack a straw man,” you’re attacking an exaggerated or skewed version of an opponent’s argument. By misrepresenting what the opponent is actually saying, you’re able to make an argument, but not against the actual viewpoint.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request because, he explains, homework is good preparation for college. One student replies, “You just want us all to be mindless drones who do whatever the authorities tell us to do!” There’s no evidence suggesting that is what the teacher desires, but it is what the student has decided the teacher has implied through faulty reasoning. 

False Dichotomy:

Arguing that there are only two possible options or outcomes, when in fact, there are others that are just as plausible. Be sure to consider all possible situations before deciding to only present two.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request. One student replies, “You must hate us kids – you shouldn’t have become a teacher.” The student is arguing that the teacher must give less homework, and if he doesn’t, that means he must dislike children. There are other possible explanations however, such as the teacher thinking homework helps students learn more or the teacher is required by the school to give a certain amount of homework.

Bandwagon:

Arguing that something is true or right simply because others are doing it or thinking it. The fact that something is popular or gaining popularity does not automatically make it infallible. 

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request. One student replies, “Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones don’t give us this much homework, so neither should you.” The other teachers may have their own reasons for giving less homework, but those reasons don’t necessarily apply to this specific teacher.

Appeal to Ignorance:

Arguing that because something is currently unknown or unknowable, it is either impossible to prove or disprove. An appeal to ignorance can be avoided by doing more research into a topic or acknowledging the absence of official facts.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request, saying, “I’ve never heard of too much homework harming anyone.” Based on this statement, it’s evident that the teacher has not done research to see what an appropriate amount of homework may be, or if there are any negative effects associated with an abundance of homework.

Appeal to Authority:

This occurs when you cite an authority figure to back up a claim without checking into the figure’s statement and credentials – you automatically trust him or her because of a professional or celebrity status. But the authority figure may not be trustworthy and credible, and has gained authority through dishonest means. Furthermore, an authority figure could be a reliable source for one topic, but not another.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher denies their request. One student replies, “But Beyoncé said in an interview that schools should assign less homework!” While Beyoncé is a successful singer, songwriter, and dancer, and could presumably offer wisdom when it comes to these subjects, that does not automatically give her an authoritative voice when it comes to educational practices. 

Post hoc ergo propter hoc:

Meaning “after this, therefore because of this,” a post hoc fallacy states that because Y followed X, Y must have occurred because of X. This argument ignores the other steps that could have happened in between.

Example: a group of students asks a teacher to be assigned less homework, and the teacher replies, “The last time I gave you all less homework, your test average went down three points.” Less homework did not necessarily cause a decrease in test scores. Perhaps the test material was more difficult than the previous test, or the students took the test on the Friday before winter break and were distracted.

The only way to avoid fallacious reasoning is by conducting thorough research. Check out these 10 Research Tools for Nonfiction Authors so you can start building a trustworthy and credible foundation for yourself and your book.

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